On a gumdrop cake fail and multiple points of assessment
What can a failed gumdrop cake remind us about assessment?
I’m a pretty good baker and love to indulge myself when there’s time, like last month’s holiday season. For me, baking is partly about eating (of course!) but also about tradition, hospitality, and comfort.
Just before Christmas, I set out to make a gumdrop cake. It was an unmitigated disaster. When I turned it out of the pan, it collapsed. (See embarrassing photo at right).
Based on that single point of baking, a casual observer could determine that I’m a lousy baker. In fact, I should be barred from the kitchen and given directions to the closest bakery for all subsequent treats. This wouldn’t be a fair representation of my skills, just a snapshot of a single – bad! – evening.
It’s the same for our system of assessment in the UG program: no single assessment determines a student’s progress. We use multiple points of assessment, both in preclerkship classes and through clerkship rotations, to ensure we have an accurate portrait of a student’s performance over time. Admittedly, some assessments are higher stakes than others, but no single assessment will determine a student’s fate in the program.
Anyone can have an “off” day – for any number of reasons. What’s important following poor performance, is to take stock of what happened, reflect on what may have contributed to the poor outcome, and make a plan for next time.
I was really upset. I’d made this many times. I was “good” at this. Had I somehow lost my baking mojo? Plus, I was embarrassed — as well as annoyed with myself for wasting all kinds of butter, sugar, eggs, flour and gumdrops!
My adult daughter gamely offered this advice: “Sometimes a new recipe takes a few times to get right.” Except it wasn’t a new recipe. I’ve made this gumdrop cake dozens of times for over two decades. What could possibly have gone wrong? I reread the recipe (photocopied from my mother’s handwritten book) and my scrawled notes in the margins. I’d used mini-gummy-bears in place of the “baking gums”. In trying to be cute and expedient (didn’t have to chop those up!), I’d sabotaged my own cake. I’d also forgotten to put the pan of water on the bottom rack, but I thought that was likely pretty minor.
For students after a poor assessment, that same reflection can help: did I study or practice enough? Was it efficient study/practice? Was I under the weather? Did I have enough sleep? These self-reflection questions will vary based on the type of assessment, but it boils down to this: What can I learn from this assessment experience and what can I do differently next time?
I waited over a week before I attempted the gumdrop cake again. In the meantime, I (successfully) made four kinds of cookies, a triple-ginger pound cake, and a slew of banana breads. Then, I bought the right kind of baking gumdrops and remembered to follow ALL the instructions, and it turned out just fine. In fact, I sent some to my parents in New Brunswick and my mother judged it “delicious”.
With thanks to Eleni Katsoulas, Assessment & Evaluation Consultant, for her continued counsel on assessment practices.
Year in Review? Why wait until then?
When I worked as a journalist (about a million years ago), an annual task was writing “Year in Review” articles. These were summary or “round up” stories with the highlights of the previous year.
The stated intent was historical record, reminders and reminiscing; marking highs and lows, significant events and momentous occasions. On a more practical level, these stories could be compiled fairly easily, mostly in advance, and take up copious column inches in our weekly paper in the week between Christmas and New Year’s when nobody was reading anyway and the editorial staff wanted to take extra time off from covering newer news. Closely tied to these were “Resolutions You Should Make Now!” advice columns.
With this cultural backdrop assigning retrospection to the turn of the year, it’s easy to become cynical about such things—and reduce thoughtful review to top-ten lists and cliché-ridden commentary. For educators, however, the importance of review should not be treated so lightly. Review and reflection are important. We expect our learners to do it. Educators should give it just as much attention.
Review and reflection are integral to effective teaching practice. January is a great time for this, but so is June, or September, or some other month. Right now, for some, a semester has recently ended, for others, it’s just beginning. There are benefits to both retroactive and proactive review – and in doing it more frequently than an annual check-mark on a to-do list.
So, instead of a ‘year in review’ summary, or even a list of new year’s resolutions for medical education, here’s a sample framework for incorporating review into your teaching practice. (Use it annually, or more often, as needed).
Theresa’s Five Step Review and Revise Process
Step 1: Review & Reflect
Whether you’re considering a whole course, a few teaching sessions, or a single seminar or other learning event the process is the same. Consider:
- What happened? What worked? What didn’t? (If you’re forecasting: What could be some pitfalls? What am I worried about?)
- For anything that didn’t go well, or didn’t accomplish what I planned: How can I fix it? (Forecasting: Do I have a back-up plan? Do I need one?)
- What’s a manageable change? Do I have the knowledge, skills and ability to do this? Where can I get support and/or resources? (Forecasting: Do I have the resources I need? What kind of feedback could be helpful to me on my teaching sessions?)
Step 2: Reconsider
Once you’ve reflected on what’s happened, or what you have planned, consider:
- Did I meet my objectives (or will my plan meet my objectives)?
- Are there things I did (or I’m planning) that are just out of habit?
- What should I change to make my course/session/seminar more engaging/relevant/appropriate?
Step 3: Find Resources
When you revise your teaching plans, you may also need additional resources. This could be in the form of your own skills, materials, input from colleagues. Consider:
- What support do I need to get to where I’d like to be?
- Do I have the abilities to do what I plan? If not, how could I acquire the necessary skills?
- Are there existing materials that could help me? Do I need to develop new materials? Who could help with that?
- Who could I call on for support or assistance?
- What sort of time frame do I have?
Step 4: Refine your plan
Sometimes, what we’d like to do just isn’t in the cards this year—there can be a lot of constraints on our teaching in time, materials, scheduling. It’s important to refine revisions into things that are manageable and realistic. Sometimes you are in a position to make large-scale changes to how you deliver your learning events, other times, not. Avoid the “all-or-nothing” plan: Incremental changes are better than no changes. It’s better to be good, than to be perfect. Consider:
- How realistic is my plan?
- Are there things I consider “must haves” and things that are “nice to haves”?
- If I could only make one change in my teaching right now, what would it be?
Step 5: Reflect & Review
At the end (or the beginning) – take another look. Good teaching really is an iterative process with the cycle of review, revision, redeliver.
Sometimes the best way to review and reflect (and plan) is to talk it out with a colleague. Bouncing around ideas can bring new perspectives and inspire you and others to add to your teaching toolbox. If you’d like to chat about your teaching any time, get in touch with the Education Team.